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Roger Deakins: Breaking Down the Master Cinematographer

The scenes that we see in movies may be of three to five minutes, but it takes a lot of effort, intelligence, technique, and art to film it that way. That is the role of a cinematographer. With his exceptional skills, with his art to give the best shot adjusting the lighting and the shadows, what should be in the background and what should be focused, the angle with which the essence of a particular scene has to be caught is the art of cinematography.

And there is one man who does this job with such detailed and intricate style making the scene right down remarkable that leaves the viewer amazed. That is the art of renowned cinematographer, Roger Deakins.

Deakins is truly an artist. His talent of cinematography has created such amazing scenes which were simply perfect. The subtle revelations, the steady spiraling zoom, the focus. And his perfection of delivering the scene in just the way it was desired to create the perfect effect makes him one of the busiest and best cinematographer in Hollywood.

Roger Deakins was born in the English county Torquay in Devon. His mother Josephine was an actress and father William Albert was a builder. He did his schooling from the Torquay Boy’s Grammer School.

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While the young Deakins was growing up, he spent most of his time in and out of the school. The reason was his primary interest: painting. He had artistic capabilities since he was quite young and after many years, he got himself enrolled in Bath School of Art and Design (in Bath city) for learning and studying graphic design. While he was studying there, he found out his love for photography. He happened to be a skilled and talented photographer.

This new found love of photography got him hired to manifest a photographic documentary of Torquay, his hometown. Soon after a year he dropped out of the art school and reenrolled himself in the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire.

This switch from art school to pursue his photography abilities led him to become an experienced and expert documentarian of mental institutions, war zones as well as improvised regions around the globe.

Now that he was able to handle the ropes real well, Deakins took a leap from the documentary cinema to narrative film. Ultimately he became the cinematographer of choice for the renowned Coen Brothers as well as enabling him to work with Paul Higgins, Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Ron Haward, Tim Robbins, Michael Apted, Edward Zwick to name a few.

More than a few films in which Roger Deakins has exhibited his cinematography skills are considered modern classics. Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Barton Fink, Dead Man Walking being at the top.

If one goes through the list of over 60 films that Deakins has shot in the past few decades, there will not be many people who wouldn’t have seen the art of this maestro and a movie shot through the lens of this artist of amazing angles.

Shortly after Roger Deakins had graduated, he found himself a job as a cameraman. His work included assisting in the documentaries’ production in various locations and that too abroad for around seven years. During these seven years, Deakins first project Around the World with Ridgeway included a nine-month trip as and entrant of this around the world yacht race.

This project was able to capture the growing uneasiness and tensions between the crewmen of the ship. For his work in Around the World with Ridgeway, Deakins received high praise and appreciation for showing the counterparts amongst these shipmates and the teammates.

Right after the completion of Around the World with Ridgeway, Roger Deakins was hired by the television studios to film numerous documentaries in Africa. His first documentary Zimbabwe, was and extremely informative and quite compelling depiction of the horrible genocide that had been going in there followed by the devastating civil war in Zimbabwe.

His second documentary. Eritrea –Behind Enemy Lines was another portrayal of conflict, but this time it was within the borders of Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.

Since Deakin’s work in Africa till the early years of the 1980s, he kept on with his directorial and continued his cinematographic work which was not limited to documentaries only but had reached the rapidly increasing field of music videos as well.

Roger Deakin’s early work, both as a director and cinematographer of music videos included many of the early Madness music videos. Blue Suede Shoes of Carl Perkins, the concert film Van Morrison in Ireland.

Afterward, Deakins also worked on Towers of Babel, The Kitchen Toto, Sid and Nancy, and Pascali’s Island.

It happens to be his eye behind the three award winning films in theaters. No Country has already earned five awards for best picture and is an unyielding contender for way more.

The first feature film of Deakins’ as a cinematographer was The Mountains of the Moon (1990). His collaboration with the Coen Brothers initiated in the year 1991 on the film Barton Fink. Barry Sonnenfeld, the director, had worked for the Coen Brothers as a cinematographer for their three previous films.

Since then, Roger Deakins has become the leading man of Coen Brothers. He is their cinematic collaborator as well as their primary cinematographer.

He received his first major award from the American Society of Cinematographers for his outstanding work in cinematography for internationally praised, The Shawshank Redemption. The shot of Andy (Tim Robbins) escaping from a prison cell and rain pouring down on him with his arms outstretched became an iconic shot and this movie also earned Deakins his first Oscar nomination of shooting the film.

The ASC kept on honoring Deakins with his incredibly and amazing later works as well which included Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou and The Man Who Wasn’t There.

A lot of effort was put in to get the look of autumn in O Brother. As the movie was filmed in summer and the shot where the singing sirens had bewitched Turturro, Clooney, and Nelson, the way Deakins pulled off the sequence with each man having his siren float in and out of frame was brilliant. Deakins states that’s what the boys wanted everything gradually moving out of sync and that’s what I did.

In Fargo, Deakins experimented with the light and with how little of it could enable him to take the shot one of which was set during the day the other at night. The night car chase of Fargo inspired him for the idea of how to shoot Jesse James.

The Man Who Wasn’t There got Roger Deakin his second ASC Award.

In the year 2008, Roger Deakins became the first ever cinematographer to have won dual nominations for his work in No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford both of which had remarkable sequences. Jesse James earned the BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography and handful of other honors along with In the Valley of Elah and Deakins also received Academy Award nominations for both of these fantastic films.

Roger Deakins received two nominations for the ASC Award again for The Reader and Revolutionary Road in the year 2009.

True Grit was nominated for Roger Deakins’ innovative and on point cinematography and won an ASC Lifetime Achievement Award.

Roger Deakins have been widely appreciated and applauded for his beautiful digital cinematography in Skyfall winning him another ASC Award in 2012 for outstanding achievement in cinematography which was his third win and 9th nomination. The reason Roger Deakins signed on as cinematographer for this movie was having worked formerly with the director Sam Mendes on Revolutionary Road and Jar Head.

The reason he has been showered with such praise and being much appreciated by the ASC is that Roger Deakins is a perfectionist. He takes painstaking efforts, losing track of time in getting the perfect shot which is the essence of each scene leaving the viewer with a lasting impression. He tries and gets successful in doing so what is the demand of the scene as well as the movie.

Roger Deakins has also worked as one of the visual consultants for animated feature films of Pixar’s WALL-E. He was also in the team of DreamWorks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon which was a delight to see as well as in Rango of Nickelodeon Movies.

It will not go without saying that Roger Deakins has been busy for decades and that is what makes him such a master and artist of cinematography. His skills and talents have polished for being out for so long that now he is one of the benchmarks of cinematography.

Apart from winning the Career Achievement in Cinematography award by the National Film Board, he has had five nominations for Oscar and over 25 awards for the Best Cinematography.

In the 2013 Birthday Honours, Roger Deakins was appointed as Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for his incredible services to the films.

Roger Deakins’ Filmography:

Blade Runner 2 (2017)
Hail Caesar (2015)
Sicario (2015)
Unbroken (2014)
Prisoners (2013)
Skyfall (2012)
In Time (2011)
True Grit (Dec 2010)
Company Men (2010)
A Serious Man (2009)
Doubt (2008)
The Reader (2008)
Revolutionary Road (2008)
In the Valley of Elah (2007)
No Country for old Men (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
Jarhead (2005)
The Village (2004)
The LadyKillers (2004)
The House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Levity (2003)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Dinner with Friends (2001)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Anywhere But Here (1999)
The Hurricane (1999)
The Siege (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Kundun (1997)
Courage Under Fire (1996)
Fargo (1996)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Secret Garden (1993)
Passion Fish (1992)
Thunderheart (1992)
Barton Fink (1991)
Homicide (1991)
The Long Walk Home (1990)
Air America (1990)
Mountains of the Moon (1990)
Pascali’s Island (1989)
Stormy Monday (1988)
The Kitchen Toto (1987)
Personal Services (1987)
White Mischief (1987)
Sid and Nancy (1986)
Defense of the Realm (1985)
Shadey (1985)
The Innocent (1985)
Return to Waterloo (1984)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
The House (1984)
Another Time, Another Place (1983)

If you liked Roger Deakins: Breaking Down the Master Cinematographer  take a listen to:
Emmanuel Lubezki: Why He’s One of the Best Cinematographers of All Time

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  1. Steve Hullfish on November 27, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Run your articles through the Grammarly Chrome extension and you’ll get rid of a lot of the typos that plague this otherwise very nice piece. Not trying to be a dick. Just trying to help. Must be 20 errors in this piece. I find them in my own writing, so I can empathize.

  2. Raine on August 26, 2017 at 10:05 am

    Amazing Article. Really enjoyed it.